A very nice article, Eric, but I think you somewhat over-state your case. Sure, if you plan on doing business with China anytime in the next decade it’s useful to learn Mandarin, but it’s not going to become a major global language for the following reasons:

i) China’s economy is non-sustainable. All developing nations show huge GDP increases as they industrialize because they’re starting from a very low baseline. But China’s totalitarian regime is stuck between needing to impose absolute rule and needing to encourage economic development. There’s never been an instance of any totalitarian regime sacrificing the former for the latter. So as growth declines as the Great Catch-Up comes to its natural end, and as the state rules with an ever-harder hand, those impressive GDP numbers will be less impressive even while, as is the case today, they’re mostly fiction anyway.

ii) China will be the first large-population nation to experience ageing before becoming wealthy. This is going to hit Chinese GDP very hard indeed and further remove any chance of it being the world’s dominant economy and consequently dominant military power.

iii) Mandarin isn’t a great language for international purposes. English is unusual in that because it resulted from the merger of Old English and Old Norse, it’s grammar is unusually flexible, permitting the adoption of loan-words far more easily than other languages. Add to this the simple 26-character alphabet and relatively wide range of phonemes (contrasted to the very limited range of phonemes in Mandarin) it’s simply impossible for Chinese to compete on an international basis.

iv) Lastly, all standards tend to be in English. Air Traffic Control worldwide is in English, much corporate law derives from English-language originals, the world of global finance is conducted for the most part in English, and there are plenty of other institutions that are likewise English-centric. Add to this the fact that English is the world’s dominant second language and the essential lingua franca for countries like India (whose population is as large as that of China) and it’s pretty clear that English will remain dominant for the remainder of this century. By which time the Chinese economic model won’t be looking anywhere near as impressive as it has done in the recent past.

So by all means, folks should learn Chinese for the pleasure of it, but it’s not going to be anywhere near as essential as your interesting article implies.

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